By: Paulina Prazmo
“Stomp out Stigma,” “Move for Mental Health” and “SOS Rally” are some phrases you might be hearing and seeing around campus this week. Mental Illness Awareness Week – running September 30 to October 4 is the reason why.
Whether it’s a topic that you have personally dealt with, something you have helped a friend go through or simply a topic you are genuinely interested in, mental illness is something that quietly surrounds us every day, and this week we’re talking about it.
What if you’re the type of person that can recognize that something is wrong in your life but feels anxious just thinking about it? You can’t figure out if it is in fact a mental illness, let alone take action, if you can’t think about it. Depression? Anxiety? Multiple Personality Disorder? Bipolar Disorder? Just a few terms that might have been creeping around the back of your mind. During our interview, Mariette Lee, president of COPE McMaster, and Debra Earl, the Mental Health Team nurse at the Student Wellness Centre, set the record straight about mental health and mental illness. Further still, they provide information about what “getting help” and “stomping out the stigma” really consist of.
COPE is a student mental health initiative club focused on awareness of mental illnesses. Lee begins by saying that the top mental illnesses experienced by university students are depression, anxiety and academic stress. Though these mental illnesses can flare up in university, one in ten Canadians will experience an episode of major depressive disorder, according to a 2009 study by the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatment. Earl gave some 2011 statistics – straight from McMaster students – saying that 40% of Mac students experience depression, 30% experience anxiety and 30% experience other diagnosable mental illnesses.
The most common symptoms of mental illnesses begin with “withdrawing and isolating from activities, friends and struggling with emotions,” said Mariette Lee. “If I see someone I know from COPE or from class, and suddenly I don’t see them for a while, that would start to worry me about the possibility of them going through a hard time,” she added. Another important gradual symptom to look out for has to do with sleeping patterns. “You might be sleeping less because you’re lying awake and worrying, or you may be sleeping more because that’s how you are dealing with the parts of your body getting tired and you lose energy staying in bed all day,” said Debra Earl. Eating patterns might also be affected: “Usually people lose their appetite, but sometimes people find that they eat more because they find comfort in food; it gives them something to do,” Earl said.
A big and very important symptom for students is when they experience a loss of interest in academic life. Earl explained, “A student might not be performing as well as they want to be. They might have just failed their first exam, or they didn’t bother doing their first assignment. It bothers them, but at the same time they don’t really care. They lost that caring factor.” That scenario is a very common indicator that something is definitely wrong. Students suffering from a mental illness typically do not notice the changes because they are gradual. “They try to blame it on another reason as to why they are feeling they way they are. We need students to be aware of what the signs and symptoms are so they can recognize it and know when to seek help before falling apart,” Earl continued.
The Student Wellness Centre, along with other professional services here at McMaster, has both counselling and medical services. This is one of many resources that students may go to and receive help on campus. Student groups, online communities, specialized books and other off-campus services are also readily available.
“Unfortunately it’s usually the stigma of coming in and asking for a mental health appointment that stops students from coming in for that first appointment,” said Earl. The way mental health and mental illness are perceived can make it hard for someone to reach out. Even if you are a person that is not necessarily suffering from a mental health illness, there are things you can do to help those around you. “What we can do socially, starting from the littlest things, can help with another person’s mental health. I wish more students, faculty members and staff at McMaster [would] be more aware and more cautious of the social and educational spaces that they occupy because they are not the only ones in it. We also share a space with people who are living with mental illnesses and you might not even be aware of it,” Lee said.
For many students living with a mental illness, it takes weeks, months or even years to finally open up to a person about how they have been feeling. They become masters at hiding their struggles and have a hard time making any steps to becoming healthier. Earl said, “I think ignorance creates stigma. We need to break down the stigma and educate people about mental illness. People need to be asking ‘how do I know myself if I have a mental illness?’ ‘When do I go for help?’ ‘How do I go for help?’ Those are the questions people need to be asking themselves.” She also stated that 20-25% people will be affected by mental illness.
Awareness about this severe prevalence, as well as available help to those in need is not as widely advertised as it should be. Earl added, “The campaign [Stomp Our Stigma] is about the elephant in the room. Mental illness is in the room, but we don’t talk about it. It’s a large proportion; 25% of people suffering is a big percentage. If you think about 25% of people having cancer it would be outrageous. We don’t have that same kind of outrage about mental illness.”
So take the time to really move for your mental health. Take the time to stomp out depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Take the time to learn the 101 of mental health. And most importantly, take the time to realize that you are not alone, not as a sufferer, and not as a supporter.